What I Read, March 2022

Mostly blocked March from my memory—it was as gruesome as always, ugh the Spring semester sucks so much—but I did take some time off over Spring Break (which meant I was even more fucked than usual afterward, all those “breaks” academics get are great as long as you don’t use them) and so I read a little more than I have been. Deets below.

But first, exciting news: Frances, Rebecca, and I launched our podcast! At One Bright Book we discuss one book an episode, and then fill you in on some of our current reading. Available wherever you get your podcasts, and on Twitter.

Elaine de Kooning, Italian Summer #28, 1970

Katrine Engberg, The Tenant (2016) Trans. Tara Chace (2020)

Competent Danish procedural, the details of which I’ve forgotten. Just what I needed to get out of a reading slump.

John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van (2014)

Darnielle’s first novel—or second, if you count his book about Black Sabbath—is pretty great, establishing his striking blend of menace and warmth. The narrator, disfigured after a suicide attempt gone wrong, is a recluse who lives modestly on an insurance payment which he supplements with the proceeds of a mail-order role-playing game set in a post-nuclear future. The details of the game—its interplay between choice and fate, constraint and freedom offering an allegory for the narrator’s own life—and the community it creates for the narrator with people he never meets moved and fascinated me. I still like Universal Harvester best (it has the most interesting female characters), but the guy’s got me for life, I’ll read whatever he writes. Maybe even that Sabbath book.

Seth Dickinson, The Traitor Baru Cormorant (2015)

Excellent fantasy novel that allegorizes the experience of the subaltern groomed for imperial service. (This situation is the basis of an otherwise different but also excellent sf novel by Arkady Martine that I read in January and have yet to write about.) Baru Cormorant is a child when her homeland of Taranoke is conquered by the Imperial Republic of Falcrest. The Falcresti bring wealth and technology (medicine, sanitation, etc.) but they subjugate Baru’s people both economically and violently. Their obsession with so-called sexual hygiene leads them to destroy Taranoke’s kinship structure (families have two fathers and one mother). Singled out by a high-ranking official, Baru develops her prowess in mathematics at an elite boarding school, as well as a life-long ambivalence: furious that her ostensible benefactors have murdered one of her fathers but also enchanted by their promise of power in Falcrest’s zealously meritocratic system. After graduation, Baru is sent to Ardwynne, thirteen squabbling provinces that threaten to unite in rebellion. As Imperial Accountant, Baru controls the purse-strings and establishes herself as the most important figure in the realm. So although the novel eventually details a military campaign (though even here Dickinson emphasizes politics over battle), it’s mostly about bureaucracy and monetary policy. Sound boring? Anything but! The ending actually made me gasp. Last book to do that was Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith. There are two more Baru books—better believe I’ll be reading them soon.

Menachem Kaiser, Plunder (2021)

As promised, I taught Kaiser’s memoir about his efforts to reclaim family property in Poland in my seminar on Holocaust postmemory. I liked the book even more when I had the chance to think it through with students. They mostly liked it, too; some were prompted to write about it, which generated several strong essays. In the best one, a student wrote about fighting with her father over his decision to keep a dagger adorned with Nazi insignia that his own grandfather, the student’s great-grandfather, brought home from the battlefields of Europe. (The great-grandfather fought through the Ardennes.) The student deepened her reflections about her familial conflict by juxtaposing her situation to Kaiser’s similar but definitely not analogous predicament,

My students and I were even more jazzed about the book after Kaiser visited the class (Zoom really is great sometimes). He was awesome, no surprise, articulate and funny. The students asked reasonably good questions, too. Take our word for it—read this book. And if you need more convincing, it just won the Sami Rohr Prize: that’s a big deal.

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover (1992)

The first One Bright Book selection—check out what Frances, Rebecca, and I had to say about it! I was into it, and I liked it more after talking about it. Poor time management meant I had to read the book in two days, worrisome given its length, but it engaged me more than I expected. Perhaps its blend of essayistic reflection and historical fiction reads less unusually today. Everyone says Sontag was no brilliant novelist, but based on this small sample she was far from terrible. Worth your time.

Eli Cranor, Don’t Know Tough (2022)

Cranor lives about an hour from Little Rock, and he definitely gets rural white Arkansas, especially the pleasures of its landscape and the ugliness of its insularity. Don’t Know Tough is about football, a sport I find excruciatingly boring (another reason I’ll never fit in here). But I do understand being passionate about a sport—far as I know, though, Canadians don’t attend hockey games played by children they don’t know, the way people here do with, say, middle school football games.

Anyway, Don’t Know Tough features some conventional narrative elements: a coach newly arrived from California (Cranor plays this fish-out-of-water set-up too broadly; folks here are not as hostile to Prius drivers as he suggests), a troubled star player whose anger issues are sensitively depicted, and the requisite budding romance. When the star’s abusive father is found dead, the trouble soon reaches Gothic levels of extravagance. I dunno, I didn’t love this book. I guess Southern Noir is a thing now—of the writers I can think of that fit that description I sure prefer S. A. Cosby.

Manda Collins, A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Mayhem (2020)

Crime-romance hybrid set in late 19th century England featuring a journalist and a Scotland Yard detective. The meet cute isn’t so cute—she calls out his shoddy work; he’s pulled from a big case—but when they’re thrown together at a country house they start to understand each other (he was covering for someone else, plus she jeopardized the case with her reporting) and hoo boy if the sparks don’t fly! Soon they’re solving the case and having hot sex. The mystery is fine, but the sex is the thing, and the only problem with this enjoyable if forgettable novel is that there’s not enough of it.

Claudia Piñero, Elena Knows (2007) Trans. Frances Riddle (2021)

Elena, a 62-year-old woman living in Buenos Aires, has Parkinson’s. Her daughter, who had been her caretaker, has recently died. Her body was found in a church she frequented: officials declare it suicide, but Elena doesn’t believe it and sets out to find the truth, which requires a painstaking journey across the city to meet someone she thinks can help her. The journey is possible only because of the medication that briefly unlocks her limbs, so she must time her movements around dosages. That’s where the suspense of this novel—I gather Piñero is mostly known as a crime novelist—lies. Her descriptions of Elena’s physical condition are impressive: the woman’s frustration and her daughter’s fury at being as locked into a life as her mother is into a body that won’t respond are movingly depicted. Indeed, the novel turns out to be about bodily autonomy—a topic more relevant by the day here in the US. (Piñero was active in the movement to legalize abortion in Argentina.)

I appreciated Elena Knows more than I loved it. My reservations hinge on a lack of control in the narrative perspective: I couldn’t tell how much we were supposed to read against Elena, to see her as the antagonist. Rebecca and I chatted about this; she suggested that “the things that make [Elena] awful are what enable her to survive.” That makes total sense, and fits with the novel’s tragic sensibility. I guess I couldn’t help but think that Piñero couldn’t quite maintain the tragedy. The more I write about this, though, the more I think the failing is with me, not the book. Take a look and judge for yourself.

Chana Porter, The Seep (2020)

The Seep is an alien entity that gently but thoroughly infiltrates earth, with amazing results: human life becomes utopian. Everything that can be imagined becomes possible. Humans are cooperative and relaxed, attuned to pleasure and forsaking guilt. They solve the climate crisis and stop war. They redistribute wealth. Their art isn’t up to much, though. A few people persist in living off grid in something called The Compound, where, it is implied, they experience the authenticity of suffering. The protagonists, Trina and Deeba, live happily together, even if Trina is occasionally wistful about the Before Times. One day Deeba decides she wants to become a baby again and cannot be swayed from this course, despite Trina’s desperate pleas. Deeba’s death/rebirth sends Trina off the rails, a state from which she recovers only by setting off on a quest that Porter never seems to know what to do with. It’s about whether we need suffering to have a meaningful life, which is a question, for sure, but not one Porter has anything new to say about.

This queer sf novella diverted me for an afternoon but nothing about it will stay with me.

Yoko Tawada, Scattered All Over the Earth (2018) Trans. Margaret Mitsutani (2022)

Best book I read this month, doubtless one I’ll still be thinking about at the end of the year. Like Plunder, Scattered All Over the Earth is a story of dispossession. Tawada—who writes in both German and Japanese—presents loss, if not as gain, then as the beginning of something new. In that sense, despite being set in the near future, it is a book for today. Japan has sunk into the seas, and no one even remembers it other than as a vaguely defined “land of sushi.” Hiroku, a climate refugee who teaches immigrant children in Denmark and has invented her own language, Panska (Pan-Scandinavian), wants to find someone who can speak Japanese with her. This has shades of those heartbreaking stories we increasingly hear of the last of a species, doomed to lonely death in a zoo (I gather Tawada wrote a book about polar bears in a circus), but the accent here is not on what has vanished but what might come to be. Through circumstances I can’t remember anymore—it’s been a minute—Hiroku makes friends with a gaggle of sympathizers, each of whom narrates two sections of the novel. Most important of these is Tenzo, an Inuit from Greenland who has reinvented himself as Asian (white Europeans being unable to tell the difference) and become an expert in Japanese cuisine. His cooking is neither a form of cultural appropriation nor of fusion. He doesn’t prepare sushi “as well as” a Japanese; he just prepares sushi. At times Tawada reminded me of a writer who, stylistically at least, she couldn’t have less in common with: J. G. Ballard. He never seems fussed by loss or anguish either; like Tawada, his books are filled with incident yet uneventful.

It’s perverse, given the book’s rejection of authenticity, but I wish I could read it in Japanese. I wonder what her language is like, whether there are elements of richness and roughness to the prose that the translation smooths out. My only reservation about Scattered All Over the Earth is that the style feels a bit flat in that “this is amenable to English translation” way that writer/translator Tim Parks is always on about. In this case, to be sure, what might seem homogenous could in fact be a new form of creation, along the lines of Panska. If you’ve read the book in Japanese, I’d love to know your thoughts—or even if you haven’t but have thoughts on the translation. It’s taken me too long to read Tawada; good thing I have four or five other books to hand.

Anthony Horowitz, A Line to Kill (2021)

Third installment of the Hawthorne series (previous books reviewed here and here). After a dip in volume two, the PI Hawthorne and his hapless Boswell, writer Anthony Horowitz, are in fine form here, where they are sent by their publisher to a tragically underpowered literary festival on one of the Channel Islands. There’s a murder—who would have guessed! Often laugh out loud funny but also quite suspenseful, A Line to Kill shows that Horowitz learned plenty from the Holmes novels he wrote earlier in his career, ably employing the Watson character (i.e., himself) as a stand-in for readers, not just of this book but of crime fiction generally, a genre that gets extraordinary mileage out of making its audience feel stupid.

Richard Dienbenkorn, Berkeley #32, 1955

Read any of these? Care to tell me I’m wrong about Elena Knows? Anything to recommend? Have at it!

Alina Stefanescu’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Alina Stefanescu (@aliner). Alina was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her partner and several intense mammals. Recent books include a creative nonfiction chapbook, Ribald (Bull City Press Inch Series, Nov. 2020) and Dor, which won the Wandering Aengus Press Prize (September, 2021). She is currently working on a novel-like creature. More online at www.alinastefanescuwriter.com.

Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).

Diane Arbus, Girl in a watch cap, N.Y.C. 1965

Forget the books I reviewed for literary journals…

I’d prefer to talk about The Others—to dwell on the fact that I lost my Barbara-Comyns-virginity this year, thanks to Richard Mirabella and Kyle Winkler. I wound up in a zoom room which led to a rabbit hole—and, after climbing back into the regular world, my head included a bookshelf full of Comyns, starting with her first novel, Sisters by a River, which Emily Gould introduced as “a barely fictionalized account of her strange childhood” created to entertain and amuse her own kids while living in London and “working as a cook on a country estate to escape the Blitz.”

Comyns’s second novel, Our Spoons Came From Woolworth’s, continues to mine her life, carrying the reader through adulthood, which is to say: a series of ordinary remarkable things, including childbirth, child loss, marital drudgery, peak misogyny, and pets (from newts to foxes). Then I devoured her haunting, impeccably grotesque novel, The Vet’s Daughter. According to the 1981 Virago edition, Barbara Comyns “dreamt the idea” for this novelwhile honeymooning “in a Welsh cottage lent to her and her new husband by the Soviet agent Kim Philby in 1945.”

It was delicious. I regret nothing.

Nor do I regret the acrobatic harrow of Jennifer Fliss’s The Predatory Animal Ball; flash fiction in Fliss’s hands feels simultaneously epic and dioramic. These creature stories stayed in my head—fantastic. Also compelling for its compressive impact: Men You Don’t Know You Know by Chase Burke, a book of short fiction about masculinity. I found something gutting in Burke’s deployment of segmented narrative strategies and trivia questions to undo gender, or probe its least secure spaces.

Because catastrophe attracts me, I re-read Diane Williams’ The Collected Short Stories of Diane Williams and talked to myself about her use of interior monologue. Few writers have permission to write such irreverent viciousness about men and romantic relationships. Magda Carneci’s FEM (translated by Sean Cotter) came close, though—in a different way, in a sort of neo-confessional efflorescence that indicts masculinity from the space of the intimate whisper. Mining a vein that reminds me of Hélène Cixous, Carneci’s novel engages the social construction of femininity in first-person. It opens interesting discussions about the distance between the dominant American feminism and feminisms nurtured in different soils and continents. Claudia Sadowski-Smith’s The New Immigrant Whiteness: Race, Neoliberalism, and Post-Soviet Migration to the United States brought new perspectives on marriage, social relations, and the market for brides to a topic that continues to interest me, namely, the construction of transnational identities.

Like many pandemiacs, epistolary-fever ruined what remained of my life. The hunger for correspondence met my affinity for ghosts and queer cherubim in Letters Summer 1926: Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, Rainer Maria Rilke, introduced by Susan Sontag. And then, after picking up my invisible shovel and digging around the names associated with the letters, I fell a little bit in love with Boris Pasternak’s sonorous memoir, Safe Travels, where I discovered Pasternak’s childhood dream of being a Scriabin, or being someone his father adored as much as he adored Scriabin. I suspect we all want to be loved a little too much—and then promptly forgiven for it.

I forgave Pasternak, but the last-page blues—that narrowing dread which signals the finitude of a book’s world, the cessation of a voyage, the reentry into everyday life—hit me hard upon finishing Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, in Sasha Dugsdale’s lyrical, lush translation. [Ed. – “Last-page blues”: gonna steal that one.] One of my favorite books this year, and a model for how to write the untouchable past while touching every single porcelain cat in the off-limits cabinet.

Thanks to #APSTogether, I read W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants (translated by Michael Hulse), and enjoyed both the reading and the ride. The world of Machado de Assis opened wide with The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (translated by Flora Thomson DeVeaux). There is something fantastic in de Assis’s use of hindsight to undermine respectability and status—something surreal in the aspirational, posthumous voice. And the reader is prepared for it with “The Delirium,” the long, hallucinated description of riding atop the back of a swift hippopotamus, the juxtaposition of absurdity with respect, an opening into that wicked improbable. Cubas says no one else has narrated their own delusion before; certainly, no one has ever narrated the delusional as convincingly and seductively as Machado de Assis.

Cubas is looking for a way to realize a sublime idea that hopped into his head while walking—namely, the invention of “an anti-hypochondriacal plaster destined to alleviate our melancholy humanity.” In this, our narrator resembles others looking for theories that will make them rich and famous. It feels prescient for theory to be commodified as a sort of entrepreneurship-vessel for the chattering classes, an economic opportunity for leisured libidinals. One can’t help but notice a resemblance between Cubas’s aspirations and the contemporary economic muscle of self-help industry experts. We have it all, from Emily Oster’s “evidence-based, statistical parenting” (parenting by the numbers according to capitalist constructions of humanity) to the lean-in feminisms of Sheryl Sandberg and straight to the plaster face masks of the Insta-influencer scientists—to be so rich in plaster solutions and yet disoriented, miserable, and clueless. This is the American dream as it plays out in the bourgeoisie classes.

The posthumous narrative pleasures continued with Silvina Ocampo’s genre-bender, The Promise, translated by Jill Levine, a metaphysical narrative that started as her first book—and wound up being published as her last. Ocampo’s surreal, fragmented, atemporal exploration of hindsight and promises stayed glued to the underside of my eyelids. Alas, I could not wake up without writing a series of poems in response—which turned into a chapbook—which I am burying for lack of time. [Ed. – Tease! Where is your Max Brod?]

A fascination with Decadent writers and artists led me into many brocaded tunnels this year, including Haldane McFall’s Aubrey Beardsley: The Man and His Work, an old book shot through with fireworks of crackly syntax and necro-romanticism. Idyllic for those who need a new temporality, a “twelvemonth” in which to exist.

Beatrice Bracher’s Antonio (translated by Adam Morris) uses disembodied narration to probe family skeletons and narratives—the price of telling and not telling.

My addiction to Sublunary Press objects continued, and it was exciting to hear Chris Clarke describe the experience of translating Éric Chevillard’s The Posthumous Works of Thomas Pilaster during an online book launch. I also found Chevillard’s website, which is a sort of ongoing paratext in French—and I translated a little bit for myself so that I could cheer when the author reported getting his covid vaccine—”Still, no adverse effects from the vaccine. I have rarely even felt so happy.”

Choi Jin-young’s To the Warm Horizon (translated by Soje) made me think about time-signatures in prose narrative—as well as apocalypse. First published in Korea in 2017, prior to the onset of the pandemic, the novel alternates between the lives and decisions of characters fleeing an unnamed virus. This is fine vs. is this fine—Jin-Young repeatedly lays the ethical questions of the disaster over small, personal choices in the characters’ lives. The time-signature is unforgettable. As is the book.

Diane Arbus, Man in Hat, Trunks, Socks and Shoes, Coney Island, N. Y. 1960

Where to begin among the 112 poetry books I read this year? [Ed. – Exqueeze me?] Louise Labé’s Love Sonnets & Elegies (translated by Richard Sieburth) enchanted me with antiquated forms, including the poetic blazon. [Ed. — *takes notes *] But I also wondered how, and in what form, Labé actually existed. [Ed. — ?] Karen Lessing’s “preface” to this book is tremendous. Henri Michaux’s A Certain Plume (also translated by Sieburth) felt fresh and modern—it’s difficult not to imagine one’s own Plume as a writer-self, or to imagine the secret Plumes of others. Following my OBERIU fascination from last year, I wandered into the fabulous esoterica of Alexander Vvedensky’s An Invitation for Me to Think (translated by Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich), and the forms that silence begets in poetry. Some silences are more ornate than others, and it was also instructive in revealing how Symbolism changed and evolved in Russia.

The Jenny Erpenback obsession—this I blame on David Naimon’s incredible podcast, which led me to every Erpenbeck ever published, including The Book of Words, which many dislike, but which I valued for how it engages family secrets. For the daughter, the secret changes the world in which one can exist, and it changes the self as known by the world. Sometimes we want answers, but other times we just want the world to continue in a way that allows us to have parents. The complexity of this book spoke to many migrant stories somehow, and it continues to derange me.

Anne Anlin Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief was published in 2000; I ran across it when searching, oddly, for books on melancholy of the left. Cheng argues that racial grief is not just the result of racism, but also the foundation for racial identity—and the book forms a fascinating contrapuntal subject in current discussions about diaspora, race, clinical language, and trauma. And Robert Musil’s Notebookseverywhere in my head and essays and writing this year. O, Jenny Croft and Phillip Boehm—two translators I follow closely, everything they translate—I find and devour. Other writes I read obsessively include Marguerite Yourcenar…. nevermind, nevermind. I just realized that I need to send this book list to you immediately, there is no time for me to talk about all the books I loved and read in 2021—just as there has never been enough time for me to talk about all the books I read and love. This is the curse of bibliomania. I think INXS wrote a song about it. [Ed. – This one? Or this one? Oh, you mean this one.] My lament continues.

Slackened: Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks

It’s all there in the title: Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family (1901). Impressive, then, that Thomas Mann—who wrote this book in his early 20s, which is really amazing, it does not feel like a young person’s book—keeps things as suspenseful as he does. Buddenbrooks is a page-turner, especially if you are someone whose response to growing up with the values of work, thrift, responsibility, and shame was to flee into hysteria (i.e. me).

Mann is the novelist of hysteria (see Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain for further examples). I mean hysteria in the Freudian sense, not the ordinary one of shrillness or lack of control. Freud defined hysteria as one of three kinds of neuroses (along with phobias and obsessions). Neuroses arise from the contradiction between what we unconsciously want and what we consciously know (through acculturation) we should not want. Neuroses are psychological conflicts. Every “normal” functioning person is neurotic to some extent; neuroses are not psychoses, Freud’s name for severe mental disturbances like schizophrenia in which the sense of a conscious self is gravely threatened or even absent. Neuroses aren’t for “crazy people”; they’re for us.

Neuroses make themselves felt in various symptoms. The hysteric’s symptoms are bodily, unlike those of the phobic or the obsessive; theirs, by contrast, are mental, for example, a compulsion to count to a certain number before doing something, or the need to berate one’s self after thinking something, as if thoughts were actions. The hysteric is plagued, above all, by anxieties over bodily integrity. Hysterical symptoms—to name just a few: otherwise inexplicable loss of voice, loss of feeling in limbs, phantom pains, the conviction that one is having a heart attack—are compromise formulations. They are ways of speaking that circumvent more straightforward but prohibited/dangerous speaking.

One of the aims of psychoanalysis or Freudian-inspired psychotherapy is to turn body into language. When we can tell a story to ourselves about ourselves—when we can acknowledge what previously felt shameful or unavowable—our hysterical symptoms disappear. You can say a lot of things against Freud, but you have to credit that he took hysterical symptoms seriously. Where other (mostly male) physicians said to these (mostly female) patients, “There is nothing wrong with you, snap out of it, stop malingering,” Freud said, “There is nothing wrong in the patient’s physical reality. But there is something wrong in their mental or psychic reality.” Distinguishing these two kinds of reality is perhaps the most consequential idea of psychoanalysis. Hysterical symptoms are real—a sign of great unhappiness, of desires so unavowable to the person and her society that they can only come out in damaging form.

Why am I talking about Freud so much? Mann loved his German intellectual tradition, and Freud is part of the background of his breakthrough book, though less obviously so than Schopenhauer (referenced directly), Wagner, and the Nietzsche who first adored and then repudiated Wagner. Mann’s later books would grapple with this tradition even more obviously: I think Doctor Faustus is the ultimate example, though I’ve never been brave enough to read it. (The musical sections of Buddenbrooks were quite enough for me.) Freud is the least overt of Mann’s intellectual inspirations in his debut novel, but the more intriguing for that, plus he’s the one who means the most to me.

Strikingly, the novel’s hysterics are all men (in the language of the period they would have been called neurasthenics, hysteria being then, as, alas, now, characterized as a “female malady”). Who are these men? They compose four generations of a grain merchant family in an unnamed north German city that everyone knows is Lübeck, in the years 1835 – 1877. Politics matters in Buddenbrooks, but it’s kept to the background—the failed revolution of 1848 is presented as a joke, the unification of Germany under Bismarck is important only for how it affects business and the changes it brings to state education. Instead, the novel foregrounds mental and physical health. Importantly, both are governed by rigid ideas of duty and propriety. (Buddenbrooks is the most Lutheran novel I know.) The first patriarch is Johann Jr.: that suffix denoting unbroken lineage, though the novel in fact begins with a significant change: newly wealthy, Johann and his ménage move into a home that used to belong to a powerful but now bankrupt merchant family, a scenario that will return when a more unscrupulous, energetic, and prosperous merchant eventually takes over the home from the disintegrated and dispersed Buddenbrooks. (Mann, never light with his symbolism, has the new occupant renovate the crumbling outbuildings that had once housed the Buddenbrook firm into a successful retail development. The only thing that never declines in this book is oligarchic capitalism.) Johann, Jr. of course never learns of these events: he unproblematically carries off his belief in the family’s probity and success—these being synonyms in the novel’s worldview—even cutting off his son from a first marriage because he disapproves of the young man’s way of life.

Johann, Jr.’s son by his second marriage, naturally also named Johann, but known to everyone as Jean, a nod to the elder generation’s Enlightenment-inspired Francophilia, is the most conventionally successful figure in the book. Together with his wife Elizabeth, he raises four children: Thomas, Christian, Klara, and Antoinette, known as Toni. As a leader of the community, Jean soothes the brief unrest of 1848 and thrives in business. He grooms Thomas to take over the firm, ignores the niggling reality that he has no idea what to make of “feckless” Christian, vaguely approves of but mostly ignores Klara’s piety, and pushes Toni into marriage with a promising businessman she does not particularly care for by reminding her of her duty to the family. He later regrets this decision, if not the beliefs behind it: the man proves a fraud, and Jean extricates Toni from the marriage (allowing Mann to showcase the northern German states’ comparatively liberal divorce laws), though at the cost of public shame Toni will spend the rest of her life combatting. Always preoccupied with his appearance—something that matters so much in the novel: it is paramount to these characters that they look presentable and decent—Jean dies of a stroke that fells him while he completes his morning toilette.

As the novel turns its attention to the third generation, it ramps up its theory that hysteria is the primary evidence for societal decline. Christian, who cannot settle to work, and might have been an actor or artist of some kind had he lived in a different family (he is a raconteur par excellence and either a good sport or a ne’er-do-well depending on your take), suffers life-long phantom pains that he talks about at length to anyone who will listen (always concluding that they can’t be described), before ending up in a sanatorium. (He’s “like someone delirious with fever … He has a regular mania for dragging up the most insignificant things from deep within him and talking about them—things that a reasonable man doesn’t even think about, doesn’t want to know about, for the very simple reason that he is too embarrassed to share them with anyone else.”) Klara, always frail and increasingly pious, marries a preacher from Riga; their brief marriage seems happy enough, but she dies of TB before having any children (worse, from the family’s point of view, the preacher keeps the dowry). Thomas, the “good son,” leads the family firm, works nonstop, becomes a macher (the high point of which is his election to Senator), and makes a good living, though never quite to his father’s heights. He encourages Toni to remarry to a Bavarian businessman, an amiable drunk from whom Toni recoils after she, almost at once, delivers a stillborn child and discovers her husband sexually assaulting the maid, leading her to a second divorce. Thomas’s own marriage, to a Dutch schoolfriend of Toni’s—the imperturbable and musical Gerda Arnoldsen, my favourite character, surely symbolically though not actually Jewish—is meant to assert his independence from his milieu (the Buddenbrooks are resolutely unmusical), but he is too in thrall to that world to know what to do with her. She cheats on him, if not with a lieutenant she plays duets with then with music itself.

Thomas doesn’t particularly care about his wife’s literal or metaphorical infidelity: he is preoccupied—obsessed, really—with surviving his responsibilities. Mann’s descriptions of the mask Thomas puts on when he goes out into the world, and the slackness that comes over his body and mind when he can be alone, are harrowing:

How almost unrecognizable his face became when he was alone. The muscles of his mouth and cheeks, usually so disciplined and obedient to his will, relaxed and slackened; the alert, prudent, kind, energetic look, which he had preserved for so long now only with great effort, fell away like a mask and reverted to a state of anguished weariness; his dull, somber eyes would fix on some object without seeing it, would redden and begin to water—and, lacking the courage to deceive even himself, he could hold fast to only one of the many heavy, confused, restless thoughts that filled his mind.

Thomas dies after a disastrous visit to the dentist (there are some terrible scenes in this book with the incompetent Dr. Brecht, who needs to talk himself into the terrors he inflicts on people’s mouths); he his only 48, but had become an old man, increasingly an object of scorn in the community.

Toni’s daughter, Erica, comes to an unhappy end, too: her own marriage ends in shame when her husband is imprisoned for insurance fraud (it is suggested that he has only done what others do all the time but has been made an example of because he is a parvenu). Thomas and Gerda’s only child—the family line’s increasing effeteness indicated by how few children are produced by the third generation—is at the center of the book’s final chapters. Hanno is a delicate child. His teeth, in particular, are always giving him trouble, causing fevers and having, excruciatingly, to be pulled. I take the novel’s depictions of bad teeth as a symbol of the family’s increasing inability to consume, to prey, to swallow—to be businessmen, in other words. Hanno loves music, though he’s no prodigy. What he loves is wallowing in neo-Wagnerian improvisation, a further indication of effete inability. Not only is he artistically inclined—a sure sign of decline, in this novel—but he cannot master that either. There are, however, no prodigies or geniuses in the book; the only “healthy” models of artistry it offers is to treat it as a joke, like a friend of Johann, Jr, who is no poet, but rather a versifier, good for a tasteful toast to a hostess. Poor Hanno is abruptly dispatched by typhoid, an all-too physical disease that nonetheless has a psychological component, for the feverish teen is happy to give up the fight and be taken into a beyond that he has always longed for.

At its end, the novel leaves us with its women—not Gerda (she glides back to Amsterdam to play music with the only man she has really ever loved, her father), but Toni and Erika, and some cousins, and a wonderful bit character, Theresa Weichbrodt, Toni’s former teacher who has remained a family friend, a retainer of sorts, all these years. This ending makes sense, because although the novel focuses on male characters I think it is really a novel about women—the most interesting characters are female, even though they are all minor. On the one hand, the novel denigrates femaleness—the men are increasingly effeminate and hysterical, and that’s a sign of their decline. But on the other, it almost unwillingly upholds femaleness—the women are the ones left standing, and even though their roles are limited, they are the ones who actually uphold the core Buddenbrook values of decency and duty.

There is of course an irony here, since those values have killed the male characters. Of course, women have plenty of experience of living under values that confine, oppress, even kill them; no wonder, then, that they survive, if not thrive. Buddenbrooks made me think about Lauren Berlant’s idea of “cruel optimism”—what happens when something you desire harms you, gets in the way of your flourishing. (Freud made a similar argument, but emphasized the individual over society; Berlant thinks cruel optimism is characteristic of neoliberal precarity, like the internship you want so badly even though it pays you nothing.) Mann’s characters live under the sway of an ideology of probity that both gives them their meaning in life but also kills them.

Mann—or at least his narrator—relishes the irony. In “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag fulminated against the “obstreperous irony” of books like Buddenbrooks, which she described as impossible, even embarrassing to the contemporary (1960s) moment. This critique hit me hard when, as an impressionable Young Person, I fell under Sontag’s sway. I agreed, too, with her later claim that irony can lead to laughter so unbridled it leaves one gasping. Now, as a middle-aged reader, I have more time for Mann’s irony. But I’m still not sure what to do with it. It’s easy to see what Buddenbrooks is critiquing: the straightjacket of decorum; ideas of psychological, physical, and financial “health.” But what does the novel value? What is its critique for? When, at the end, the remaining characters wonder if they will be rewarded in the next life with the chance to see their lost loved ones, Theresa Weichbrodt, the former teacher, insists it will be so:

There she stood, victorious in the good fight that she had waged all her life against the onslaughts of reason. There she stood, hunchbacked and tiny, trembling with certainty—an inspired, scolding little prophet.

I can only read this as an at-best bemused dismissal of the woman—her victory against “the onslaughts of reason,” her physical smallness (hinting at fallibility or inconsequence), her similar metaphorical diminution. The “little prophet” can only scold, not thunder. But if the novel makes fun of this viewpoint, while also ending with it, what’s left? I see no Nietzschean transvaluation of values here, no indication that, since all values are contingent, we should abandon the very idea and simply see who and what succeeds. Similarly, returning to Freud, there is no position here that matches the analyst, the one whose task is to help the patient to health (the alleviation of physical suffering by getting to the psychological root of the problem) by helping them to see why they act as they do.

In short, there’s nobody to look to as an alternative point of view, no one who successfully challenges the Protestant merchant ethos. Toni’s second husband, the Bavarian, decides to quit business for a life of leisure, but his physical and emotional grotesqueness (he’s fat and ugly and a lech, if also kind, though I think the latter results more from laziness than genuine feeling) makes him hard to identify with. Toni’s first love, a working-class medical student named Morton Schwarzkopf, at first seems a viable candidate—I definitely wanted him to return and hoped for a late-in-life, gentle reconciliation with Toni—but Mann shrewdly denies this end: it would muck up his portrait of the family as locked into a way of life; there is no synthesis of classes here, no bringing in of new blood to revitalize the old. The novel leaves us at an impasse: the way of life it examines is as impossible as any alternative to it.

This is already too long, so I’ll only mention one of Mann’s most notable ways of representing that impasse lies in his use of leitmotifs, a nod to Wagner, presumably. Epithets and phrases are attached to characters—most often, used by characters themselves. There’s Morton’s phrase “I’ll just go sit back there on those stones,” his way of acknowledging he is not of Toni’s social class, but a kind of passive-aggressive way of marking his absence. There’s Toni’s term “silly goose,” which she describes herself always as having been.

I’ve a hunch these phrases are linked to another of the novel’s interests: pronunciation. Time and again, we are told how characters pronounce their words and expressions, often as indicators of social class, or provincial origin, or of modishness. Perhaps this interest is related to German unification/nationalism, as the novel is set in the decades when Germany becomes a nation and becomes a little more homogenous. But I’m really not sure what to do with this aspect of the novel. It does strike me, though, that the epithets or leitmotifs imply stasis—as if no one ever changes or learns anything. They project consistent identities. Yet this idea contradicts the theory of change, specifically decline and degeneration.

Maybe this contradiction fits a novel poised between realism, even naturalism, and modernism, which might be the kind of novel I like best. Reading Buddenbrooks I thought a few times of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, a book published about ten years later. The description of Thomas and Toni’s mother—lingering, horrifying—reminded me of Gertrude Morel’s. As engaged as I was in Buddenbrooks, though, I think it’s a lesser novel that Sons and Lovers. Lawrence’s breakthrough is messier, no question, and its focus is narrower (in some ways, The Rainbow might be a more apt comparison). But it is consistently more interesting at the level of the sentence. (No slight against the translator, John E. Woods; he’s done fine work, except in turning Bavarian dialect into southern American English, that didn’t work for me.) Mann is more about the big picture, about ideas.

It was that philosophical sweep that captivated me the first time I read the book (in the Lowe-Porter translation). I was only 19 or 20; it was one of the longest, most serious books I’d ever read. I remember loving it, but other than the scene of Thomas’s death I remembered almost nothing about it. Thinking back on it now, though, I believe I was in thrall to the novel’s theories—sensitivity is a sign of degeneration; the failure to work hard and thriftily is a sign of moral failure; such failure will first appear through the body; a weak body is the sign of a weak soul. These beliefs were my family’s, too. Thirty years later, I’m still drawn to these claims, but better able to see what is so damaging about them.

Does the novel see it, though? Even after having spent some happy weeks with it, I can’t tell.

Ten From My Shelves

I stole this idea from someone on Twitter, but now I can’t remember from whom. Let me know if it was you so that I can credit you! [Note: It was Simon from Stuck in a Book. Thanks, Simon!]

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Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation

In my early to mid-twenties I was deeply infatuated with Sontag. Still am, really. I thrilled to her erudition—she’d read everything—and her elegant prose. Essays like hers are still the kind of writing I most admire. The title essay impressed me most of all, especially its famous, hortatory, gnomic last line: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”

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Laurie Colwin, Family Happiness

Another favourite from my twenties. I read all of Colwin’s books the summer between my Junior and Senior year; I was working as a bookseller then, and I hand-sold a ton of them. A few years ago I found this lovely hardcover at a library sale. I was a bit worried about re-reading it—would it hold up?—but I needn’t have. Not only was it as bittersweet as it had been then, but now I could see what at the time I couldn’t: I thought the book was about New Yorkers but it was really about (thoroughly assimilated) Jews. At the time I’d never have imagined that twenty years later I too would be Jewish, but I like to think my philo-Semitism was unconsciously at work. Colwin is so funny, but also so sad.

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David Bezmozgis, The Free World

Speaking of Jewishness, I’ve loved each of Bezmozgis’s three books, but I think this one might be the best. It’s about the Soviet Jews who were allowed to emigrate in the 1970s. Three generations of the Krasnansky family (like Bezmozgis, Latvian Jews) wait in Italy for visas to come through from Canada, the US, Australia, anywhere that will take them. Rather than focusing on the young children—that is, the characters who would have been the same age as he was when his family left the USSR for Canada—Bezmozgis focuses on their parents and grandparents. We see what the Soviet Union meant to each of them and how differently they experience even this tentative experience of the ironically named Free World. Smart, funny, no schmaltz.

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Anthony Trollope, The Warden

I read this in college and liked it well enough but I think I’d appreciate it a lot more now. Might have been a bit too subtle for me back then. I really want to tackle Trollope soon and the Barsetshire novels seem like a good place to begin.

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Olivia Manning, The Balkan Trilogy

Three wonderful novels, pretty closely based on Manning’s own experiences, about a British couple in Romania and Greece before and during WWII. The scenes of denuded, starving Athens haunt me still. Yaki is one of the great characters in 20th century literature.

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Ivy Compton-Burnett, The Present and the Past

Do you have writers you’re convinced you love but have never actually read? Probably you are less crazy than I am. But I have at least five or six books by Compton-Burnett around here and haven’t read a one.

Here’s what the publishers say about this one:

Nine years after her divorce from Cassius Clare, Catherine re-enters his life in order to re-establish contact with her children. Her arrival causes a dramatic upheaval in the Clare family, and its implications are analyzed and redefined not only in the drawing room but also in the children’s nursery and the servants’ quarters.

(Sounds like Henry Green!) Anyway, odd, uncanny women 20th Century British writers (Comyns, Rhys, Bowen, etc) are my thing, so I really ought to get around to reading Compton-Burnett soon.

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J. G. Farrell, Troubles

A great, great novel set during the Anglo-Irish war and featuring an English Major, Brendan Archer, who comes to Ireland to claim a bride he can’t quite remember proposing to. Angela Spencer is the eldest daughter of an Anglo-Irish family who lives with her family in a once glorious seaside hotel called, no longer quite appropriately, the Majestic. At once funny and macabre, Troubles sets itself the task of trying to figure out how to represent decline. I had a lot to say about this terrific, engrossing book here.

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Ben Aaronovitch, Midnight Riot

First in the Urban Fantasy Rivers of London series. Peter Grant is a rookie cop who can speak to the dead and stumbles into a little-known unit of the Met that deals with magic and the uncanny. Perfect light reading.

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Josephine Tey, The Franchise Affair

My favourite Tey (though admittedly I have rationed them and kept a couple in reserve), an unsettling novel about a woman and her mother who are accused by a fifteen-year old schoolgirl of having locked her up in their attic for a month. Have they been falsely accused? If so, how will they be acquitted when all evidence points toward their guilt? Can justice be done without prejudice? Unconventional, suspenseful, and thought provoking.

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Giorgio Bassani, The Heron

Regular readers know that together with some fellow bloggers, I recently read Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. This, Bassani’s last novel, is the newest addition to my library. I started reading the first page just now and it was all I could do to stop. Elegant mournfulness really does it for me.

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There you have it, ten books plucked from the many thousands in this too-small house. Do you have thoughts about any of them? Let me know if you’re inspired to share some from your shelves.